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Tucked away in the back of the former location of the Tuscan Market on Main Street in Salem, Roger Berkowitz samples a slice of truffled lobster pizza on a flimsy paper plate.
“It could have used a little more heat,” he told his son, Scott, who prepared the frozen pizza in an air fryer that anyone might have in their home. A simple tweak and it would have been just right.
The scene seems far removed from the delicately plated dishes and experience at Legal Sea Foods, the regional restaurant chain where Berkowitz served as president and CEO for more than 30 years. He sold the chain to PPX Hospitality Group, a Boston-area based management company, in December 2020.
Earlier this month, Berkowitz launched a new e-commerce venture, Roger’s Fish Co., which ships “restaurant-quality, prepared seafood dishes” to be served “in the comfort of your home.” The company ships to the 48 contiguous states.
The products — both raw seafood and ready-to-eat meals — are flash frozen with food-safe nitrogen to temperatures as low as minus 180 degrees. Berkowitz, 70, trademarked the proprietary technology, which he calls “Nitro-Fresh.”
Legal Sea Foods had 33 locations and brought in more than $200 million before the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most of us, Berkowitz could not foresee a pandemic dealing such a powerful blow to the hospitality industry.
“You don’t sell during a pandemic unless you have to,” he said.
He stands by the cryogenic freezing process, which he says locks in the fresh taste. The frozen products have a shelf life of nine months.
“If (a fish) is out of the water within 24 or 48 hours and I freeze it at its peak, this is really a better product,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz’s model fits into a growing trend of people ordering food from a trusted source, said Charley Cummings, CEO of Concord-based Walden Mutual Bank, which specializes in lending to groups invested in the local food ecosystem. He also was co-founder and the former CEO of Walden Local Meat, which delivers meat from local farms direct to consumers.
He noted the “boom and bust” of more mainstream meal-kit companies, like Blue Apron, which has suffered financially in recent months, according to media reports. Newer companies — like Roger’s Fish Co. — are focused more on specialty items.
“There is something to be said for the specialist approach and having a real expertise in a particular area and being able to offer a differentiated product rather than a generic meal-kit,” Cummings said.
He’s seen similar models for meat, cheese, wine and bread, among other foods.
“I think it’s where you have a proprietor who really knows a particular specialty that you can’t get that kind of quality anywhere else is where I think the opportunity is,” Cummings said. “I think there is also an element of convenience.”
The biggest challenge for Berkowitz has been to match or come up with better recipes than the ones at Legal.
“I had to think long and hard about how am I going to make a better clam chowder, because my original was pretty damn good,” Berkowitz said. “I think we certainly figured out a way to boost or enhance the flavor profile of the broth, and certainly more clams doesn’t hurt.”
The “double clam chowder” sells for $36 a quart. An 8-ounce box of Olde Cape Cod oyster crackers can be added for $5.
The pizzas — truffled lobster or white clam and bacon (10-inch pies) made with hand-stretched sourdough go for $39 and $25, respectively.
Seafood gift boxes include a full catch of salmon, haddock and cod filets along with the “Legal Sea Foods Cookbook,” written by Berkowitz.
Berkowitz held a license to continue Legal Sea Foods’ online fish market, but he decided to branch off so he could have complete control over recipes, product selections and marketing. He would only say he invested “a lot” in the launch of the new business.
In a lot of ways, the restaurant industry is changing as more people choose to eat at home, he said. Full-service restaurants aren’t going away but will likely be used for more celebratory reasons — such as birthdays and anniversaries — because of rising labor costs and supply chain issues, he said.
“Eating out four or five nights a week was a pre-pandemic habit,” Berkowitz said. “They are not post-pandemic habits.”
Seafood consumption at home jumped from 30% pre-COVID to 77%, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Of the 77%, 59% is prepared at home and 18% is takeout.
A conference table where Berkowitz worked was set with a wide array of paper plates, napkins and plastic cutlery for sampling new dishes.
“We have ideas, and then we test them out and we refine, refine, refine, until we say, ‘That’s it,” he said.
The online offerings depend on what is available from vendors, many of whom Berkowitz used at Legal.
Fresh vs. frozen
Another challenge for the new startup is the public perception of frozen food.
The nitrogen process is based on a conversation Berkowitz had nearly 40 years ago with famed TV chef Julia Child, who told him she had fish frozen this way that tasted like it came right off the boat.
“I said, ‘There’s no way it is going to be as good?” Berkowitz said. “She said, ‘Oh, yes. Oh, yes.’” (Yes, he tried to imitate Child’s famous accent).
For years, Berkowitz studied how other countries, including Iceland, Japan and Australia, prepared food to be shipped. He quickly became connected with the fishing industry in Tasmania, where his daughter was studying at the time.
While there, he toured a facility where oysters were being flash frozen with nitrogen and shipped to Japan.
“They challenged me to tell the difference between oysters under nitrogen and oysters that had just been shocked,” Berkowitz said. “I couldn’t tell the difference. That is what really sold me on it.”
The process takes less than 10 minutes.
“It doesn’t damage the cell structure because it doesn’t absorb any water,” Berkowitz said.
The rented space in Salem includes a commercial kitchen, packing equipment, a nitrogen freezer and plenty of freezer storage space. A 6,500-gallon nitrogen tank is located in the rear of the building.
Roger’s Fish Co. came out of a smaller e-commerce business he had while at Legal. It took a back seat to the restaurant.
On a recent afternoon, Berkowitz inspected about a dozen boxes ready to be shipped to places like Boston, New York, Key West and Virginia. The cardboard boxes are packed with dry ice, and orders of $125 or more ship for free (otherwise a $35 flat rate), according to the company.
The company could expand to offer products to hospitals, hotels or other restaurants.
Berkowitz grew up around a fish market working weekends and on school break. The family opened its first restaurant next door serving fish and chips. The family business was all about high-quality food, at good value.
“There was no secret formula,” he said. “It wasn’t compromising our quality.”
Berkowitz wanted to retire on his own terms. He didn’t want to let COVID get the best of him.
“You don’t raise your hand for change. It happens and you go, ‘OK, the timing is good right now,’” Berkowitz said. “It has ignited some of my creative juices to see where it goes. I don’t know where it can go.”